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Pacific Islands Studies Initiative

The University of Utah Pacific Islands Studies Initiative’s mission is to create a vital academic ecosystem, wherein Pacific Islander faculty, staff, students and community can thrive personally, professionally, and emotionally.

Our vision is that the University of Utah will be the premiere academic institution for Pacific Islands scholarship.

At the center of the Pacific Islands Studies Initiative is a commitment to recruit and retain Pacific Islander students to the University of Utah through curricular pathways, mentoring, and career planning; encourage Pacific Islands students to engage in critical thought, particularly from an Indigenous Pacific perspective; challenge students to engage in scholarship and research that will create and cultivate knowledge; and assist students in maintaining strong connections to family, spirituality, and culture; recruit and retain Pacific Islands studies faculty, and staff to the University of Utah through advocacy for faculty and staff development and advancement.

To achieve our mission & vision we will:

  1. Attract talented Pacific Islander faculty and staff to the University of Utah where they can serve as mentors, advisors, and role models for students;
  2. Build and solidify partnerships with Pacific Islander communities locally and globally;
  3. Establish a bridge program that is culturally grounded, informative, and assists Pasifika students with the process of applying to and being successful at the U;
  4. Offer an undergraduate certificate that allows students to integrate Pacific Islands Studies with their major;
  5. Stage events that engage participants in Pacific-Islands-focused scholarly activities.

Pacific Islands Studies at the U works at the intersection between indigeneity and diaspora. Indigenous Pacific Island communities have deep histories of cultural, linguistic, and social systems that predate western contact by many thousands of years. The island homes for these communities are seen to many individuals as idyllic vacation spots and to many governments as strategic military, fishery, and mining resources. But the highly evolved humanistic traditions possessed by these communities are of unquantifiable value.

Historically, Pacific Studies has roots in area studies.  In this vein, Pacific Studies emerged as a discipline to gather political, economic, cultural, and social information about the region to improve US strategic positions against Asian nations and the threat of communism. This stance ignored the Islands’ interlinked histories that challenge the continued legacies of imperialism, colonialism, and militarism. Indeed, we call our initiative Pacific Islands Studies in order to acknowledge Oceania as a sea of islands–connected not isolated by the ocean.

Moreover, Pacific Islands Studies at the U articulates with Indigenous Studies in ways that re-center research directed by Indigenous Pacific Islander communities’ own concerns. These matters involve self-determination and decolonization–the actions Indigenous peoples undertake to reclaim their ways of being. Specifically, we understand indigeneity to be the relationship of autochthonous peoples to their homelands, languages, ceremonial cycles, and sacred histories. It also marks the international political solidarity among peoples who identify as Indigenous.

The Pasifika community in Utah is an important diasporic hub. Initially spurred to Utah by missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who have been active in the Islands since 1844, Pacific Islanders have lived in Utah continuously since the 1870s. This community, at first primarily comprised of Native Hawaiians, now includes Tongans, Samoans, Fijians, Tahitians, Maori, Cook Islanders, Chamorro, and a growing community from island nations within Micronesia.

Growing in population but vastly underserved is the story of Utah’s Pacific Islander students. They are graduating high school at near the statewide average, but their college enrollment and completion rates are catastrophically low. Approximately 7% of Tongans and 9% of Samoans, the two largest Pacific Islander groups in Utah, hold Bachelor degrees; these are the lowest figures for any racial-ethnic group in the state. While the Pacific Islander population at the U is underrepresented (420 total) compared to the proportion of Pacific Islanders in the region, the comparatively young, large, and growing population maturing through the local school systems presents a pending opportunity to bolster matriculation of Pacific Islanders to the U; to engage the community in exploring issues of critical importance to them and their Island nations; and to advance Pacific Islands Studies with the university and community together uniquely poised to embrace a relational-research approach to indigeneity and the diaspora.